Rising Inequalities: An Honest Conversation on College Access, Diversity, and Social Mobility

Author: Diana Aguilera

Every year, prospective college students share on YouTube the exact moment they receive an acceptance letter from their dream school. Moments of joy, shock, and exhilaration immediately follow. But for first-generation and low-income students, being admitted into a prestigious university is only half the battle.

On December 7, 2020, prominent thought leaders on American higher education delivered the Wesson Lecture on Problems in Democracy, and addressed critical challenges regarding college access, diversity, and social mobility in the United States. Harvard sociologist Anthony Jack, author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students, was in conversation with Paul Tough, author of The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us. Jennifer Morton, an associate philosophy professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and author of Moving Up without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility, moderated the discussion.

Tough began the virtual lecture by stating that although a college degree does provide opportunities for individuals, “higher education as a whole is an engine not of social mobility, but of inequality and social closure that perpetuates the existing advantages and disadvantages in our society.” He offered three suggestions to make higher education fairer and more democratic.

First, rethinking admissions at selective universities. Tough argued that people either “need to just accept that these colleges are not going to become socioeconomically diverse, or we need to nudge them in the direction of more significant change.” As he sees it, the goal should be to admit students for whom these institutions can add the most value.

He then addressed his second suggestion—flattening the system of American higher education. Compared to countries in Western Europe and Canada, Tough argued that the U.S. suffers a shortage of high-quality, well-funded institutions. Eventually, “it creates a country like the one we've got with few, very successful billionaires and a much larger population that is disenfranchised and dissatisfied and resentful of higher education.” He attributes the root of this phenomenon to policy decisions, in particular decisions about how public higher education is funded. Lastly, Tough said institutions need to create a more welcoming environment for first-generation students.

The Privileged Poor

Jack, an assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, agreed; in fact, he stated that higher education itself is becoming even more stratified. Consequently, lower-income and first-generation students attend schools with fewer resources, lower graduation rates, and fewer opportunities. And those who manage to get into selective colleges quickly realize that admission is not the same as acceptance. Jack defined these students as “the privileged poor.” Citing his research, he concluded that top institutions recruit their new diversity students mainly from the same old sources—elite prep schools. As a result, these socioeconomically disadvantaged students struggle.

“We need to really care about the inequalities that students have experienced in route to college and more than just the [application] essay,” Jack told the audience. “We need to understand how it affects how they move through higher education.”

Something so simple as defining office hours can have a tremendous impact on students’ success. Jack emphasized that not every student knows what office hours mean; not every student feels comfortable “turning a professor into an advisor, an advisor into a mentor, a mentor into a sponsor.”

“The way in which we expect students to navigate this hidden curriculum, the system of unwritten rules and unsaid expectations is so classed,” Jack said, which directly impacts low-income students. For colleges to indeed be engines of opportunity, “university policies and campus cultures will have to change.”

A Diverse Citizenry

Jack, Tough, and Morton arrived at the same conclusion—universities need to be more accessible to socioeconomically disadvantaged students; there needs to be a more robust support system for students to thrive. “If you take seriously the idea of higher education as a public good that is contributing to society by more and more people having it, then you want to prioritize those who might be at the bottom,” Morton said.

But how can society help young disadvantaged students achieve success? And what role do universities play in supporting students in translating these unstated norms and expectations? These questions arose during the audience Q&A that followed the moderated conversation. “It has to be an all-hands-on-deck,” approach, Tough suggested.

When it comes to campus culture, “It is the responsibility of faculty, staff and administrators to identify when certain acronyms and nicknames become a gatekeeping mechanism and then rectify the situation,” Jack added.

The virtual audience asked a variety of thoughtful questions related to resource allocation, funding public higher education, admissions policies, and, of course, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education. “No one was exempt from experiencing COVID, but it wasn't felt evenly,” Jack said. Both panelists stated that the pandemic has certainly amplified longstanding inequalities and has created uncertainty regarding the implications for higher education.

On a final note, Jack and Tough emphasized the powerful role students can play to make higher education as a whole more equitable. “This is a generation that is really alive to questions of equity and fairness and diversity,” Tough concluded. “Students are a really important voice for change. If we want to change admissions policies, I think there's no more powerful force than the students who have already been admitted.”

While their voices are essential, Jack believes students should not do the work of universities. Ultimately, it is the institutions’ responsibility.  However, for there to be real change, universities “must listen to the students to begin the process of making higher education, not just successful, but also inclusive.”